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The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness

3.99  ·  Rating details ·  6,351 ratings  ·  632 reviews
In 1962, at age seventeen, Karen Armstrong entered a convent, eager to meet God. After seven brutally unhappy years as a nun, she left her order to pursue English literature at Oxford. But convent life had profoundly altered her, and coping with the outside world and her expiring faith proved to be excruciating. Her deep solitude and a terrifying illness--diagnosed only ...more
Kindle Edition, 338 pages
Published December 18th 2007 by Anchor (first published 2004)
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Nancy Davison The poem that inspired "The Spiral Staircase" was Ash Wednesday
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Amends for a Guilty Generation

I share a generation with Karen Armstrong. We are baby-boomers. As such we also share a responsibility for the world as it currently exists. It is we who fought and subsequently ran the most destructive wars in history; we who pursued our personal economic success regardless of the cost to society; we who believed in the pursuit of ideals for making the world better, watched as it became less and less habitable; and we, those who happened to be Catholic anyway, who
Will Byrnes
Karen Armstrong - image from TED

A nuns tale. Armstrong tells of her experience from her seven years as a teenager and then young nun in the convent through a loss of faith, severe physical and mental challenges, trying to find her way in the world as an academic, and ultimately coming to a new understanding of spirituality. It is a reasonably quick read. I found that I was very interested at times, and at others just going through the motions. One notable absence here is any real detail on her
Mar 24, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Karen Armstrong is a bestselling author in the field of religious history. Some of her more popular books include A History of God, The Battle for God, and The Case for God. This is her memoir about life after leaving the Roman Catholic church. She was a nun. It's a wrenching story. Armstrong, for reasons not clear until much later in her life, entered as a novitiate at the age of 17 with a great belief in her capacity to find God. The discipline was brutal, the nuns, whom she describes as ...more
Mar 26, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir
I feel a little conflicted about Spiral Staircase. For one thing, it's Armstrong's third autobiography. She's a writer whose career started not with the religious histories for which she's now known, but with memoir-writing. Her abandonment at age 25 of a 7-year nun career aroused interest in the publishing world, leading to Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery. This was followed by a sequel, Beginning the World. Spiral Staircase is in many ways a rewrite of Beginning the ...more
Sep 08, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religion
I just finished reading Through the Narrow Gate by Armstrong, and this is its sequel. In this book she tells of her nervous breakdown after leaving the convent. I was surprised that she didnt have her breakdown while in the convent due to how horribly she was treated by some of the nuns.

Now she is on the outside and is seeing a psychiatrist. His way of analyzing her is despicable, but at that time most therapists were Freudian, and Freuds teachings were still respected. I was glad that she
Jay Green
On a blind date many many years ago in Manchester, my companion said to me at one point late in the evening, "You're very cerebral, aren't you?" She didn't mean it as an insult, but she didn't mean it as a compliment, either. She meant that I was lacking in the ability to talk in ordinary language about ordinary things, to relate to others in an intimate, personal way, preferring the abstract and high-flown instead. This anecdote came to mind (she was wrong, incidentally; I was just shy and ...more
Doug Bradshaw
Jan 26, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a remarkably personal and insightful journey which takes us through the loss of hope and faith and then back to a higher realm of love and understanding. Here are my personal thoughts about this book:

1. By the end of the book, I felt a bond with her that is similar to something I have felt for some of my best professors and teachers who helped me understand complex things. Karen is extremely honest and open and able to describe emotions and reactions which many thoughtful people must
Jul 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Before I went to visit and spend two months in Bethlehem, Palestine, I wanted to read something about the history of the area, not a religious book, just something historical that went beyond the recent familiar history since the British abandoned those residing in these lands to their fate.

I chose to read Karen Armstrong's A History of Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths and actually read it while I was in situ. It was a history of multitudes of power shifts and massacres and when I finished it,
Sep 04, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir, religion
The first book I read that helped me realize that I was not alone in my experience of post-seminary difficulty. Armstrong's account of leaving the convent was so powerfully analogous to my own experiences that I nearly wept as I read (something I only do on very rare occasions), both with remembered pain and grief and with joy that there was nothing peculiarly wrong with me or my experience as a refugee from a life of professional holiness.
Jul 19, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir, spirituality
"Theology is or should be a species of poetry, which read quickly or encountered in a hubbub of noise makes no sense." Karen Armstrong

I read The Spiral Staircase a few weeks back between road trips, first to visit an aunt and uncle in a small university community and second to attend an Episcopal peace conference at a mountaintop retreat / convent. The timing of my read of this memoir (about a nun who left the church to pursue graduate work at Oxford only to leave academia and make her way as
Jan 17, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: great
From leaving the familiar environment of the nunnery, unfairly 'failing' her graduate dissertation, discovering her epileptic condition, spending years of her working life in a high school teaching job that failed to challenge or interest her, and crying nightly over her jobless and purposeless state-- Karen Armstrong courageously relates the trials that had seemed to wholly compose her life. I am thankful for it. Although I am not sure how to react to her almost uncritical paean to ...more
Lynne King
This book is excellent and a joy to read. Extremely uplifting too.

I may try and write a review on it.
Nov 07, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Although this was more of a three in some ways, I'm giving it a four because of the way it spoke to me.

I loved Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery, Armstrong's memoir of her years spent in a convent and her decision to leave. Aside from offering an intriguing description of a nun's life in the '60s (Armstrong lets us know on several occasions that it's probably much different now with the changes of Vatican II), I found that I related to it personally as a religious person
Oct 19, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Every once in a while, I get around to reading a book that surprises me because the author has put into words things that I have felt the urge to say, but not had the words for, nor had ever seen in print. Karen Armstrong's memoir, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, is one of these books. If a soul could be said to have emotional strings, then Karen's book resonated with those frequencies in mine, and this made the book a breeze to read.

It had sat on my shelf for several years
Debbie "DJ"
Received through Goodreads First Reads. (Thanks!) Karen Armstrong is nothing less than a master of the written word. While this is a memoir of her life, it is also a powerful look into religious theology and personal transformation. I had previously read her outstanding book "A History of God", and was captivated by this read describing how she came to write such a book. Starting out as a catholic nun who later leaves the church and religious life behind, only to come full circle to a place of ...more
Laila (BigReadingLife)
Jan 03, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Laila (BigReadingLife) by: Book Group
I enjoyed this book more and more the deeper I got into it. Karen Armstrong is such an appealingly intelligent and slightly odd person. A fascinating memoir.
Nov 07, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is Armstrong's second memoir from when she leaves the convent and begins a scholarly life and career. Although she tries to detach herself from the religious life, the concept of transcendent does not leave her. Through her works, she has tried to understand the religions, what connects them and what makes them different. It is well worth mentioning that her book "Muhammad, prophet of our time" is one of the few unbiased western biographies of the life of the prophet Muhammad. What makes ...more
Jul 03, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
It's interesting: I think I read this book several years ago (although it is possible I read THROUGH THE NARROW GATE, her previous memoir, instead). If I DID read this one, clearly I have changed since that time, because this time, it was Armstrong's struggle with faith that hit me hardest, and what I remember last time was being simply mesmerized by her account of life as a nun. Which is horrifying, by the way! When Armstrong talks about life as a nun - and as an ex-nun - and how her formation ...more
Jan 05, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Just re-read this book and it's still amazing. Not reading it in a class, it did feel a little more difficult to get through. Her story is truly unique, but it is hard to read for so long about the pain and sorrow, the trauma and to feel no hope. She does an excellent job helping you feel that despair through a good portion of the book.

In other words, you have to pay your dues to get to the insightful thoughts on theology. It really is the last chapter where you can't stop highlighting things
Dec 30, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I knew Karen Armstrong for her reputation as a comparative religion writer. I didn't know that the path that led her to where she is now was anything but a straight forward one. Rather, she likened it to a spiral staircase, an image used by TS Eliot in his religious poem, "Ash Wednesday."

Ms Armstrong opened up about her broken self and spirit after a rigorous 7 years in the convent, training to be a Catholic nun. She described her helplessness to connect to those around her, and their innocent
Jun 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
For much of this book, I kept thinking "TMI"...too much information, way too much personal information.

But Armstrong captured me with her last pages which resonated very strongly with me and which wrapped up the first 263 pages and made me realize the necessity of her long litany of her religious life.

Part of me feels quite akin to Ms. Armstrong...I was always the rule follower, the doctrines were important...but in the past few years I've come to realize the perennial tradition that is strong
Feb 17, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Would be too difficult to enumerate all the reasons why this book is important to me. I feel like I found it at exactly the right time. It's a memoir about leaving a Catholic convent and trying to make sense of the secular world, but it seems to be more about figuring out how to build an adult faith. Since I read it on my Nook, I had to hand copy whole pages of it into my journal. Worth the effort to save those passages. Will probably need to buy the "real" book.
Mar 31, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Before Karen Armstrong became an authority, both learned and accessible, on the religions of the world, she spent seven years in a convent. Her first memoir, Through the Narrow Gate, recounted those seven years. This book takes the reader beyond those years. through a period of intense sufferings and trials, and to the point where she discovers her true vocation.

The first part of this book recounts the end of her time in the convent. The brutal and, sometimes, absurd practices of the nuns numbed
Dec 15, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
From Publishers Weekly
In 1962, British writer Armstrong (The Battle for God, etc.) entered a Roman Catholic convent, smitten by the desire to "find God." She was 17 years old at the timetoo young, she recognizes now, to have made such a momentous decision. Armstrongs 1981 memoir Through the Narrow Gate described her frustrating, lonely experience of cloistered life and her decision, at 24, to renounce her vows. In its sequel, Beginning the World (1983), she tried to explain her readjustment to
May 03, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: those struggling with their spirituality
Recommended to Joe by: NPR
Shelves: own, memoir
Nancy Pearl has stated that if a book doesn't catch your attention within the first 40 pages, it is not worth your time.

I am glad that I don't prescribe to this belief.

Slogging through the first 100 pages of Karen Armstrong's memoir The Spiral Staircase was a task. Peppered with a constant, nagging reiteration of her thesis ("Nunnery ruined me and did not prepare me for secular life"), these pages drag on interminably. It all comes across as mewling and self-conscious.

When, however, Armstrong
Apr 05, 2008 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
She's a bitter ex nun- I was so disappointed by this book. I hocked it the first chance I got.
Jon Stout
Dec 17, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religion
After reading Muhammad a Prophet for our Time Eminent Lives by Karen Armstrong, Ive become a Karen Armstrong enthusiast. The Spiral Staircase is her autobiography, and provides the shortest and most personal access to understanding how she got to her current position of being an interpreter of religious tradition in the face of its cultured despisers Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. If forced to speak in the most literal terms about a being within the universe, Armstrong is ...more
Feb 20, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, memoirs
Ahemm. By the end of the book, I find Armstrong making sense, saying things that I can mostly concur with, or at least that do not make her sound embarrassingly naive in regards to a primary theme of her life, namely an understanding of religion. Her insights are pertinent, and very worthwhile sharing in an age when religion is so often considered irrelevant and useless because it isn't provable or rational. As a report on her development throughout life to reach this point, her story holds some ...more
Austen to Zafón
A friend loaned me this book and said it was good. She said, "It's about this nun who leaves the convent and what she goes through afterward." That sounded pretty dull. I'm not a religious person, but neither is my friend, so I thought I'd give it a try. I was hooked on the first page. It may be a bit hard to believe, but this book was a real page-turner for me. Three different times I sat in the bath until the water was almost cold because I couldn't stop reading. Armstrong entered the convent ...more
Tim Titolo
Jan 21, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011
I am a fan of Karen Armstrong. Her contributions to religious history are very large. And I always took her as presenting evidence fairly while not being prejudicial to one or other particular religion. I have read many of her books.

The Spiral Staircase was intimately entertaining. I always knew of Armstrong's experience in the convent and rejection of the same but the book goes on into much more detail of her experiences.

She says, at one point, that if Satan were mythology and God was
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Karen Armstrong, a comparative religion specialist is the author of numerous books on religion, including The Case for God, A History of God, The Battle for God, Holy War, Islam, Buddha, and Fields of Blood, as well as a memoir, The Spiral Staircase.

Her work has been translated into 45 languages. In 2008 she was awarded the TED Prize and began working with TED on the Charter for Compassion,

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